Thursday, May 18, 2006

Why conservative Anglicans are wrong to support the Nigerian gay marriage bill

Nigeria will soon take up debate on a gay marriage ban, and we in the US are doing the same. Nothing wrong with open debate on the subject, right?

Right! But let's be clear. The Federal Marriage Amendment (or FMA), which was voted out of the Judiciary Committee today on a strictly party line vote, is a desperate attempt by a panicky GOP to provide disgruntled voters with a wedge issue for November elections. The FMA has no chance of being passed. It needs a 2/3 majority in both the House and Senate -- it could pass in the House, but it doesn't have a chance of passing in the Senate -- and then needs to be ratified by 3/4 (or 38) of the state legislatures. If I sound snarky here, it is because the FMA has no chance of passing.

The FMA has other problems. It abrogates the rights of the states to decide how they want to proceed with civil arrangements, and it injects a level of government oversight of personal behavior not seen since Prohibition. The FMA is explicitly designed to deny "the blessings of liberty" to a particular group of American citizens, and prevents the states from making their own decisions about the ordering of civil society. It is also drastic. In the unlikely event that it passed, the growing tide of acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships and families would eventually be so great as to require that the amendment be repealed. And that day would come.

The situation in Nigeria is very different. Legislation (pdf) submitted by President Olusegun Obasanjo's executive council to the Federal Assembly prohibits the state from recognizing gay marriage -- but it also prevents gays and lesbians from celebrating marriage in private ceremonies and denies the right to speak out, assemble, or express opinions in the press in favor of gay marriage. The penalty? Five years in prison.

In the US, if the FMA passes, supporters of men and women who wish to enter same-sex marriages would still have certain remedies. They would have the right to speak out against the amendment. They could hold meetings. They could write articles in the press. And eventually they could rally support for repealment.

But if the Nigerian law were passed here, gay marriage be universally illegal -- and anyone who supported it would be put in jail.

Perhaps blinded by their allegiances, the response of conservative Anglican supporters of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who endorsed the legislation in early March, have been disappointing.

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh (Anglican), and moderator of the traditionalist Anglican Communion Network, said:
[I]t should be noted that while the proposed law sounds harsh to American ears, the penalty for homosexual activities in those parts of Africa under Islamic Sharia law (such as the Sudan and portions of Northern Nigeria for that matter) is death. It is precisely the imposition of these much harsher Sharia laws that Archbishop Akinola and other Anglican leaders in Africa have resisted so strongly for many years with little publicity or support from the West.

It is jarring, to say the least, to see church leaders, who claim to champion the primacy of local understanding and culture, demanding that foreign sister churches give up their own local understanding and culture and be judged by an American understanding of individual rights. There is a word for the one-way imposition of values - colonialism.
Reverend Martyn Minns of Truro Parish, Fairfax, Virginia, who is probably on the short list for the episcopacy in a network of Anglican parishes that Archbishop Akinola has established in North America, said:
I do NOT believe that criminalization is an appropriate response to those who understand themselves to be homosexuals. Resolution 1.10 from the Lambeth Conference in 1998 is a good summary of my convictions on this contentious issue. While I “reject homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and sinful, I do believe that we are “to minister pastorally and sensitively to all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation”. Having said this I am very much aware that even in the Commonwealth of Virginia there are still laws that deal with various “Crimes against Nature” and in particular homosexual practice and adultery. The continued existence of these laws is a reflection of our own society’s struggle to find a way to support and protect heterosexual marriage while at the same time acknowledging the human rights of all persons.
Far be it from me to lecture Anglican clerics on their ecclesiastical missions, but could it be that these seemingly well-meaning and civic-minded men are willing to rationalize and stand aside as their Nigerian colleagues endorse a law that would put gay and lesbian Nigerians in prison? Do they believe that prison would bring gay and lesbian Nigerians closer to the Church? Maybe torture would be faster.

We are having a debate in the US about gay marriage, and rightly so. Nigerians should have that debate, too. Until we get our own house in order, we have no right to tell them that a ban on gay marriage per se is wrong.

But we in the US are very much within our rights to complain that a ban on speech, assembly and the press with a punishment of multiple years in a Nigerian prison is a step too far (image right from the BBC). Aside from preventing open and civil debate, a ban speech is a direct abrogation of the very democratic principles Archbishop Akinola and his president, Olusegun Obasanjo, have repeatedly professed. It also violates principles laid down by their own constitution.

Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) wrote the following to President Obasanjo regarding the legislation earlier this month (May 2):
I must tell you that I find this effort to persecute innocent people based on their sexual orientation not only morally indefensible but also profoundly undemocratic. I am deeply troubled by the hostility that is manifested by this legislation, including the denial of the basic democratic rights of free speech and association, which are not only core international human rights standards, but are also enshrined in your own country’s constitution.

... If this proposed legislation that so blatantly violates individual freedom and basic democratic rights to freedom of expression and association prevails, Nigeria would no longer in my view have any claim to genuine democratic rule. Also, given the degree of contempt and absolute intolerance towards gay people reflected in the measure, should I assume that if this becomes law, you would no longer want my support, as a member of Congress who is also gay, for any American proposals of assistance to your country?

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject this inhumane and wholly undemocratic effort.
We are also very much within our rights to demand that our own church leaders stay away from calling for or acquiescing to bans on civil liberties. And for the readers of VirtueOnline obsessed with the "homofecalerotic" nature of the debate, forget gay marriage and "homosex" for a moment and consider that conservative Anglicans are faced with a very serious problem, one that they have not yet taken seriously. Are they willing to let their highly admired African leader ride roughshod over basic civil rights? Are they willing to support his clearly stated endorsement of a law that would put gay Nigerians (perhaps even gay Anglican Nigerians) in jail for what amounts to a theological disagreement? Are they willing to let the passage of this legislation damage their credibility?

Are they willing to let ministry turn to persecution?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", then as an American I would say that they deserve little else but our scorn. Why should I enter reasoned debate with someone who might someday decide that God has denied my right to speak?


Anonymous said...

I think that's is not fair. Yet in some ways its not our business. America needs to fix our sex problems and drug and gangs and so on. Before it puts its knows in anyone elses business. We got enough crap to deal with ourselves.

Matt said...

What isn't fair about it?